Ram Gori with her newborn baby and other children.— Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Ram Gori with her newborn baby and other children.— Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Almost two days after the Teen Hatti shanty town inferno, there are volunteers and NGOs setting up camps at the place to extend help to the affected people. Big and small pickup trucks with free clothes, quilts, biryani, biscuit and potato crisp packets, cooking oil, flour, juice boxes and water bottles pull up as the volunteers in them distribute the stuff.

The poor people struggle to get ahead in line. They climb over one another. Some also chase the vehicles.

"Maybe we will also be pushing and pulling one another like this, desperate for bare necessities if we were in the same situation," said Shakeel Ahmed, a volunteer in a camp set up by a private hospital, while speaking to Dawn on Thursday. "We set up camp here soon after the fire and we can’t even begin to describe the scenes we have witnessed. The people have been in need of warm clothes, slippers and shoes, first aid, medicines for small ailments such as colds and diarrhoea and conditions such as asthma in this harsh weather. Night-time is particularity harsh for people living under the open sky," he said.

There were also two babies delivered right there during the fire. The children and their mothers are in distressing condition. Mariam Tahir, another volunteer at the camp, said: "One baby needed immediate medical help. He was dehydrated and we had to rush him to the National Institute of Child Health to save his life. They had to admit him," she said.

When asked about the baby’s mother, Leela, an old woman whose home was also burnt in the fire, said she had been taken in by some relatives living in another shanty town of the city. But she said the other mother and baby were still there at Teen Hatti facing their fate. "Ram Gori doesn’t even have proper clothes to wrap her baby," she said before leading this writer to the newborn and his mother who were sitting in the open.

Volunteers distribute relief goods to Teen Hatti fire victims

The mother, too weak to go and fight for the food and clothes being distributed by volunteers, watched everyone with crazed eyes. She was grateful for whatever her neighbours brought her. “Please pray for us,” she requested before thanking them all.

Another old woman was crying and cursing everyone loudly. "Just because I am old, I was pushed back by the younger lot. And by the time I was able to go ahead the biryani had finished. I only got this," the poor woman, a widow named Mala, said showing us a small packet of potato crisps.

"We are fighting to snatch food from the volunteers before it is all finished to keep ourselves alive. It is day to day survival for us now," she said.

A print media reporter with a notebook was trying to speak to the affectees about the issues they were facing. Soon she found herself surrounded by hoards demanding she write all their names because they thought that she was also from some organisation that would help them. Many women tried giving her photocopies of their CNICs. "We have lived here all our lives. See the address on our CNICs. Where do we go now? What do we do? The fire burnt down everything that we owned," one of them cried. Then another pickup with sweaters and jackets pulled up nearby and the women raced in its direction leaving the journalist alone.

The affectees are also finding it very difficult to get back on their feet. "I sell flowers for a living. I used to sell red roses at signals, but I have not been able to work since the fire," said Anita Marwar.

"My entire family of 10 people are sitting under the open sky in this cold weather. None of us have been able to get back to work," she added.

"We are being given food and warm clothes, medicines too. But what we really need right now is a roof over our heads," said Kamran Mahmood, a young man watching the others and bringing them whatever he could lay his hands on at the volunteer camps.

"All these food packets are fine for now but unless we have our huts again we don’t have a place to keep our belongings, or leave our children while we go out to earn our living. The fire has left us with nothing, no clothes, no pots and pans for cooking and no plates and utensils," he added.

"It gets so cold in the evenings. We wish some volunteers would bring us some dried wood, too, for burning to keep ourselves warm in the open air," he said.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2020